Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Stand

I read, and loved, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series a few years back. I’ve always been interested in works that combine fantasy elements with a real world setting. I think there’s a tendency to downplay the significance of events that happen in our world. People will accept an epic quest to save the world in The Lord of the Rings or a movie set in the past, but in movies set today, the best we can hope for is a quiet drama about a few peoples’ lives, or an action movie where a government is at stake. Even if it is about saving the world, it’s not presented that way. We devalue the significance of actions in our own world when in reality the things we do can be just as epic and important as any fantasy characters’ actions. So, I was pleased to pick up The Stand and find a story that started with the intention of doing a Lord of the Rings style epic in our world, using the iconography of the modern world to tell an epic story about a battle between the very forces of good and evil itself.

I was already familiar with some of the concepts in the story from The Dark Tower, where Randall Flagg appeared in various guises over the run of the story. Here in The Stand, he functions as one of two poles in the battle between good and evil. King has an uncanny ability to string huge stories together. This thousand page book just flies by, and he builds such a credible world that it really feels like the story could go on forever. There’s two major elements at work in the book, one is the story of the battle between good and evil, the other is the story of people rebuilding society following the catastrophic plague.

The good/evil battle works well enough, though some of it is bogged down by the sort of plot contrivances present in a lot of fantasy stories, namely the reliance on destiny and the hand of god to guide the story rather than character actions. Mother Abagail, despite being an interesting character, functions primarily as a literal deus ex machina, directing the characters and moving the story along to a place where it needs to go. Why does everyone come to Boulder? The story needs them there so that they can rebuild society, but there’s no particular reason, that’s where the dreams about Mother Abagail come in. Similarly, the conflict between Flagg and the Free Zone plays out almost entirely in dreams and visions, outside of Harold and Nadine bombing the town, there’s very little actual conforontation between the groups. And the end, The Stand itself,is slightly anticlimactic, but pretty much anything would be after 900 pages of buildup.

But, I think the intention is less a literal war than a metaphorical one. The actual battle is in the construction of the Free Zone versus Flagg’s Las Vegas. With the world wiped away, the survivors have the chance to build something totally different, and the conflict is whether humanity will choose a better path, or descend into a fascist state. We watch the democratic Free Zone arise, and understand how that world works, with an emphasis on freedom and people taking responsibility for themselves. The seven people on the council take on their responsibility reluctantly, and have no outright desire for power. In contrast, Flagg and his inner circle are all about getting power for themselves, ruling over the world and protecting their own self interest.

When Dayna goes over to Flagg’s society, we get an insight into the way they live. This world isn’t a den of evil, it’s mostly just regular people, unwittingly serving the force of conflict and destruction. I like that Flagg, though he is the embodiment of evil itself, isn’t played as an over the top evil guy. He can play nice, he can act human, and he sells people not with threats, but with promises of how he can help them. In the end, he is destroyed not by a people that betrays him, but by the Trashcan Man’s attempt to show how devoted he is. Flagg’s world is a viable alternative, it can work for some people, but it denies people freedom, he’s bringing back the strict regimentation of our world when people could move on to something different.

Ultimately, the message seems to be that there are some people who just enjoy doing evil, but most people who serve an evil master do so unconsciously. The everyday people in Las Vegas have no real idea what the Free Zone is, they don’t necessarily care about attacking it, but they go along with Flagg because he gives them security and purpose. He is the ultimate parent figure, with him around, nobody has any questions about what they should be doing. It’s a lot easier to govern as a fascist, the people in the Free Zone struggle to assert their authority because they don’t want to be oppressive, and yet, how do you stop people from doing things without oppressing them?

I’m used to film, where we’re lucky for a director to make a film every couple of years, and after doing a few films, most directors stop writing their own material and start doing other peoples’ scripts. That’s why I’m so amazed that King has so many stories to tell and continues to write one or more books pretty much every year. I suppose part of it is lifestyle, as a filmmaker, you need to work with actors, raise funding, and it’s tougher to branch out beyond traditional genres. But still, there’s so many stories and characters within this one book, it’s awe inspiring at times. I think there’s a lot of flaws with the book, ranging from his usual overemphasis on bodily functions, to the weak roles of women within the story, but on the whole, it’s a fantastic piece. By the end, when Tom Cullen comes along to find Stu, and they make it back to the Free Zone, it’s such a powerful feeling, of a journey completed.

For all the philosophical components of the story, what ultimately makes it work is those first 200 pages, which set up the characters and their worlds before the plague. I’m guessing the producers of Lost were inspired by that section of the book, and used it as the basis for their flashback structure. But, the difference is, reading the beginning of the book, I didn’t know where it was going to go, and those stories were just as interesting as people in the postapocalyptic world. I could have read a whole book about Frannie’s struggle with being pregnant, or Larry’s attempt to get clean. But, taking those strong character bases and putting them through the wringer of the plague makes the whole story stronger, so that instead of feeling like the entire purpose of the book, the plague becomes just something that happened to these people, the event to bring all the disparate people together to build a new world.


Havremunken said...

Hey man, long time no comment. :)

I read this a few years back, and while I thought most of it was great, the structure of the story seems a little off - like you pointed out, 900 pages of buildup, then perhaps a somewhat unsatisfying climax (compared to the buildup), and an ok ending.

Just to compare with something, you could say that the buildup is like the three seasons of Shadow buildup on Babylon 5, with the climax at Z'ha'dum, and then just six episodes later, that part of the story is for all intents and purposes over.

But I keep rewatching B5, while I probably won't reread this.. although I am happy I did read it that one time. :)

Patrick said...

I can definitely see the similarities with the B5 structure. I think the problem is whenever you build up something that long, no matter how cool your ending is, it's going to be feel anticlimactic. But, in both cases, it was magnified by the fact that the great war we were promised never really happened and we just got a mix of deus ex machina/subversion of expectations to wrap things up. I thought the end of The Stand worked, but it didn't really pay off most of the buildup we'd seen over the course of the book.

Of course, the thematic point may have been more that any attempt to build a completely structured society will inevitably lead to chaos, the more you try to protect yourself, the more things spin out of control. The end functions as a microcosmic take on the plague itself, with Flagg's old order style society destroying itself, leaving only the new order world of The Free Zone behind.

And, ultimately both works show that it's the journey not the destination. Inevitably, it's that moment right before the big confrontation that sticks in your memory, and the fight itself is usually more of an afterthought.